Review of Napoleon Movie: A Cinematic Portrait with Missed Opportunities


Ridley Scott’s film “Napoleon” is a visual feast that echoes the brilliance of great masterpieces. Each frame, crafted by Scott’s longtime collaborator Dariusz Wolski, is a genuine work of art, from the grand battle sequences to the quieter, intimate moments and the chaotic scenes of the Reign of Terror.

The movie, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon, Vanessa Kirby as Empress Joséphine, Tahar Rahim, Ben Miles, Matthew Needham, Édouard Philipponnat, Rupert Everett, and Catherine Walker, delves into the public and personal life of the legendary military commander and emperor of France.

While there’s much to appreciate in this biopic, there’s an underlying frustration at missed opportunities amid all the glamour. Scott, seemingly aiming for a hagiographic portrayal of Napoleon, neglects significant aspects of the ruler’s life, such as his administrative reforms and the strategic planning behind his military campaigns. Instead, the film suggests luck rather than intelligence played a role in Napoleon’s success, perhaps as a nod to his preference for lucky generals.

The movie opens dramatically with Marie-Antoinette’s execution, observed by Napoleon. It swiftly moves to his early military triumphs and his enamoured pursuit of Joséphine. The film portrays their marriage, military successes, and eventual separation due to Joséphine’s inability to produce an heir. Despite the lack of offspring, their friendship endures. The narrative covers Napoleon’s exile to Elba after the defeat in Russia and culminates in the final battle at Waterloo, leading to his exile to Saint Helena, where he dies at 51.

Joaquin Phoenix brings life to the character of Napoleon, skillfully creating a somewhat rounded portrayal with the limited material available. Scott had initially considered another actor for the lead role but was captivated by Phoenix’s performance in “Joker.” Vanessa Kirby, playing Joséphine, adds fire and ice to her character, making the audience believe in the love that, when unsuccessful at home, turns outward to conquer the world.

Supporting characters, including Paul Barras, Caulaincourt, Lucien, Alexander, and Arthur Wellesley, contribute elegance and color to the narrative but lack significant depth.

One notable absence in the film is a nuanced exploration of Napoleon’s life. The end credits briefly acknowledge the human cost of his military campaigns, but there’s a glaring omission of his draconian policies towards detractors, conquered nations, the reintroduction of slavery, and other controversial aspects of his rule.

Ridley Scott mentions a director’s cut that extends to four hours and ten minutes. While brevity is often considered the soul of wit, a longer version could have provided a deeper exploration of Napoleon’s extraordinary life. Despite this, the audience can still appreciate the beautiful frames, the intense battle scenes, and the overall disappointment of not fully immersing into a life that was anything but ordinary.

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